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Part 3: Understanding the Process
The custom design and development of a website is a challenging and complex process. For those tackling that undertaking, it helps to understand some of the basics of the process.
Step 1 – Define the Team – Choose the Stakeholders.
Two of the biggest challenges in creating a company website is deciding:
1) what are the goals for the website (what would the ‘perfect website’ look like, sound like and allow users to do?), and
2) who will determine whether the website’s messaging, style, user experience and functionality are meeting those goals?
To do 1, it is imperative to do 2 first. The Stakeholders for the project must be identified. Who is going to run point to ensure that the project is being done, done correctly, on time and on budget? Who will be involved in reviewing and approving content, designs, and functionality and defining the user experience?
The Stakeholders may include one or several people in leadership, marketing, IT, sales, customer service, and operations. It might also include someone in accounting, if the business is an eCommerce company, and there may need to be someone from Legal involved if the business is in an industry that is highly regulated such as finance, securities, insurance, pharmaceuticals, legal, etc.
Step 2 – Outline the Vision – What is the bulls-eye?
The stakeholders should try to at least briefly define the vision for the website. What would the ‘perfect website’ look like? What does it sound like? What will users be able to do on the website? What should the user experience be like? What can the site offer to entice people to come back again and again? The vision should be written in a brief statement. This will help the technical team creating the website to understand the purpose and complexity of the company’s website when providing a quote.
Step 3 – Identify the Digital Agency or Team who will Create the Website.
If the company has the staff to handle some or most of the project in-house, that helps. If not, then someone must do the research to identify a digital agency that has the skills and talent to create a website as loosely identified. Research firms that have the ability to do the level of website complexity that the company needs. Look for recommendations, ask for referrals and read reviews. Narrow down the list to 3-4 companies that have the sophistication to handle the various types of programming required by the website. It will vary from business to business.
Step 4 – Do Deep Discovery– Set Goals and Define Design and Functionality.
The project’s stakeholders and the digital agency hired to create the website will need to spend time together defining the project in detail, using the vision statement as the guide. First and foremost, why is the site needed? Who is it for? Who will visit the site? What should they be able to do on the site? How is “success” defined for the project? What aesthetic (look and feel) preferences does the leadership have? What design elements are available for use with the site, such as photographs, video, brand elements, etc?
Think about content. What information should the site include? What is the company’s sales process and how does it connect to the website? Will the site handle sales? Customer service requests? How do/will prospective customers find the company? What messages / key points should the site communicate?
Step 5 – Confirm the Project’s Scope.
A project brief should be written to define the project. It should include key points about content, style, functionality, etc. If it is a highly-detailed website with a lot of functionality, it helps to create a Website Architecture document which painstakingly details what each constituent will be able to do on the site.
Step 6 – Develop the Content / Messaging.
The agency will either use a writer on staff or hire a freelancer with specific technical knowledge related to the company’s industry to develop the content. If the company is in the healthcare industry, the writer might have background and experience in the medical field and a solid understanding of the common industry jargon. If the company is in the world of banking, the writer might have a background or experience writing about financial topics and have a good command of the lingo used in lending. The writer will need to interview key constituents at the company to gain a deeper understanding of the business, its goals, unique value proposition, products/services, etc. If the company already has a Brand DNA or Brand Guide that defines the company’s mission, vision, brand values, unique value propositions, etc., then the writer’s need for more discovery before developing content will be abbreviated. The writer and company staff should agree on the Site Map identifying all pages of the site before the writing process begins. There should be 2-3 rounds of edits to redirect or correct style, tone, voice and direction.
Step 7 – Design Wireframes.
Simultaneously, the digital agency will spend time crafting outline layouts that organize the concepts in the Project Brief based on the discovery. These are called wireframes. Some will offer one or several wireframe options of the home page and an interior page. Some digital agencies skip the wireframe part altogether and immediately produce page designs. While there is no set way of handling the conceptualization process, it helps to have multiple wireframe options first to ensure that the organization of the site makes sense against the site’s purpose and objectives.
Step 8 – Conceptual Designs.
Once the wireframes are approved, the designers for the digital agency will usually create one or multiple renditions of the home page design. Once a design is chosen and tweaked, the designer creates one or a few designs that will serve as the layout for the rest of the interior pages.
Step 9 – Revisions and Approval.
There is typically 2-3 rounds of revisions to nail down the basic layout of the home page and interior page(s). This is the part where collaboration is vital. The stakeholders must provide feedback. This allows the designer to massage the aesthetics of the site to meet the company’s brand and personal preferences. It is imperative to have one person who is the final arbiter of what the company wants. Style is subjective, and designers need clear feedback in order to create a look that appeals not only to the stakeholders but to the customers.
Step 10 – Front-End Coding.
When all designs are completed, the best website agencies are now integrating front-end coding with the design process to produce coded, functional templates. This is important because it provides another checkpoint for the stakeholders to review their design before back-end integration. Front-end coding should be viewed as part of the design process because today’s experiences include animations, transitions, and responsiveness that can’t be articulated in a static design file, and are often over the creative heads of many back-end developers.
Step 11 – Integration
Once approved, then front-end files can transfer to the back-end developers, who integrate the templates into the systems that make them function. The developers will either create software or identify existing software that can be integrated into the system to handle processing of orders, such as a shopping cart, communication with the client, a payment portal, etc.
Keep in mind that because it is tailored to the company’s specific needs, custom web design takes more time to complete, and in turn, requires a higher budget than a templated site. Estimating the amount of time is hard to predict because of the high level of collaboration involved, including presentations, feedback, revisions, and more feedback. Loops of communication all take time, and based on the structure of the teams in place, it can take much more time to complete. Time, of course, directly correlates to money, which means projects designed from scratch cost more versus the alternative.
Step 12 – Beta Testing.
Even after a website has been written, designed, coded and programmed, it is not ready to deploy. First, it must be thoroughly tested by a variety of users to determine if there are any glitches. The simpler the site, the less testing that is required. The more complex the site, the more extensive the testing and more people who should be beta testing the site. A period of a month or two should be allocated for testing, depending on the complexity of the site. As issues are found, they must be fixed and then retested. It is a continuous cycle in order to ensure that all issues are resolved.
This is just a simple explanation to help anyone understand what it takes to either create or update a website. It is not a process that can be expedited if the company wants a sophisticated website. Allowing the team to work through the process methodically can save much time and headaches later, and ensure that customers are given a portal that is as customer-centric, useful and pleasing as the company itself.
Quote of the Week
“Your website is the center of your digital eco-system, like a brick and mortar location. The experience matters once a customer enters just as much as the perception they have of you before they walk through the door.” Leland Dieno